On Thursday nights, when I was supposed to be learning shorthand to become a better journalist, the boy who would become my husband came to my dorm room to play cribbage with me.
We were just friends at the time. And that’s all I thought we ever would be. But we got along so well. As our pegs leap-frogged around the board and we listened to music on cassette tape, we’d laugh and chat about everything: our classes and profs, the food in the cafeteria, the annoying habits of our roommates, our families and the latest news from home.
It was easy, comfortable and fun – though predictably, it became more competitive as time went on. We put our laundry on the line, for example, in an epic first-to-100-game bet that I unfortunately lost. To this day, I can see the bags of soiled clothing piled up by his door – not just his, but everyone else’s on his floor!
I came to expect Chris’s visits. I looked forward to them, in fact. And he came every week like clockwork. Until he suddenly stopped. I thought it was strange, but our paths didn’t cross. He never told me why and I just let it drop. Then, one night when I stepped into the elevator in my residence building, he was standing there – holding hands with another girl! The wave of jealousy that hit me was a shock. My breath caught, my face flushed and I think my heart might have stopped.
It was a moment of singular clarity. Unconscious feelings suddenly revealed. All that time, I thought we had just been playing. Turns out, I had skin in the game.
Years later, when that girl was long gone and the boy who had become my husband was hospitalized for a twisted colon, we played cribbage again.
I carried the beautifully handcrafted wooden cribbage board that our daughter had given us for Christmas back and forth to the hospital every day. I’d tuck it in close to him on the bed, so he could reach it without straining, and I would perch on the edge. Our games were a little less spirited and sometimes he’d nod off in the middle of a hand, but that didn’t stop us from trying to play every chance that we had.
Cribbage got us through his nine weeks in hospital, three surgeries and endless waiting for doctors and tests. It filled the gaps between meals, naps and occasional visits from friends. It raised our spirits when they were flagging and gave us something to talk about other than scopes and scans, infections and clots and worrisome blood results.
Like a buoy, cribbage anchored us to something familiar, when everything felt like it was coming apart. And it may have even saved Chris’s life. When I told his nurse he seemed off one day because he didn’t feel like playing cards, she laughed. But to me, it was a significant change in behaviour that signalled something wasn’t right. So I stayed a little longer than I usually did to keep an eye on him – and sure enough, he collapsed. He had been bleeding internally for quite a while, the doctors said, and cribbage was the reason I was there to call for help.
Now, in the midst of this pandemic and after 36 years of marriage (plus six years of dating), the boy who is still my husband sits beside me on the sofa, trash-talking and trying to beat me at cribbage again.
You’d think by now, I’d be sick of him. Or he would have tired of me. We’ve been cooped up together for more than a year now. Just the two of us. 24/7. We haven’t been going out much or seeing any of our friends. We’ve had plenty of time to get on each other’s nerves. And yet, I find myself looking forward to what’s become a daily afternoon routine, when we pour ourselves a drink, crank up the tunes on Spotify and play a few hands of crib.
In these uncertain times, so much of our day is consumed with COVID-19: following the news about virus mutations and vaccine shortages, tracking the daily case counts, making decisions about what we can and cannot safely do, and figuring out ways to get what we need. But for these two blissful hours, when we’re immersed in cards, we forget about everything. It’s a welcome distraction that has become the bright spot in our day. What began as a match to 50 games in the beginning (when we thought this crisis would soon be over) has now stretched to more than 900 games!
Many families have turned to board games to pass the time in this pandemic. For some, it’s a novel thing. For us, the companionship and connection – and the laughter – they provide is a constant, reoccurring theme. It’s a ritual that brought us together in the beginning and holds us together still – giving us a sense of comfort and safety when the world around us feels scary and strange.
So we hunker down with our cribbage board as we do our part to keep ourselves and others safe. We’re making the best of the cards we’ve been dealt and trying to play by the rules of the game.
Suzanne Robins lives in Ottawa.
First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.